Electrical engineer and part-time drummer Ron Green has a suggestion for his fellow musicians: Bring the volume down. He says his ears often ring when he leaves shows, which does not bode well for long-term hearing health. “It seems impossible to attend a live music show without the use of some sort of ear protection,” he writes. “This does more damage than most people realize.”
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I’ve just come from an evening of music and dancing at one of Santa Cruz County’s more notable venues. It was a great night; the band rocked loud and long, while legions of the faithful danced the night away. My head is still filled with the refrain of songs that won’t quit; my feet still tap to the rhythm of an infectious beat; my soul is still ringing with the lyrics and resonance of the music.
Unfortunately, my ears are still ringing, too.
With sound levels rising well above 90 decibels throughout the night, this should come as no surprise. Even earplugs could bring the volume down to only a tolerable level of pain. It seems impossible to attend a live music show without the use of some sort of ear protection.
This does more damage than most people realize. Apparently, it did more damage than I realized when I was younger and attended shows in the 1970s and beyond.
Decibel levels below 70 dB are generally considered safe. We are exposed to sounds at these levels all the time; moderate traffic noise, or the sound of a household vacuum cleaner produce levels like this. But when sound levels rise above 90 dB, the ears start to experience damage which is cumulative, affecting our hearing over time. Levels much above 110 dB cause an instant and measurable hearing loss that is permanent. From this, there is no recovery. Ever.
So how do things go so consistently over the top that every show brings with it the specter of hearing damage, like a guitar-wielding Grim Reaper come to collect eardrums not with a scythe but a Stratocaster? How does this happen?
I know how it happens; I’m a musician, too. (A drummer since high school no less!) In the 10 years I’ve been living in Santa Cruz, I’ve attended shows at just about all the venues around town and I’ve also had the chance to play with or sit in with noteworthy locals.
It happens when the spirit of the music charges the band to a fever pitch. It happens when the bass player says he can’t hear himself and turns up his amp; when the drummer starts smashing cymbals like he was cracking coconuts; when the guitarist starts shredding with enough intensity to shatter glass.
It happens when the musicians — themselves already suffering hearing loss — turn it up so everyone can “hear” the music. It happens just like that.
We love our music. We love the rhythms, the beats, the plaintive guitar licks, the soaring vocals. We love how it charges the air with energy, how it gets us out of our chairs and onto our feet.
We love what it does for us.
But what we don’t realize is what it’s doing to us: It’s stealing our hearing.
Bit by bit, almost imperceptibly — but relentlessly — it is robbing us of the ability to hear. We are losing the ability to enjoy the subtle rustle of the wind in the trees, to hear the nuances of quiet conversation, to hear the giggles and whispers of our children and grandchildren.
Does it have to be this way every time?
I put this question to the musicians themselves. Can’t we have music we can enjoy without earplugs?
There is a point of diminishing returns even in music. It would seem counterproductive to invite folks to hear you play, then earnestly proceed to destroy their hearing.
As a fellow musician, I’d like to offer a helpful clue.
Drums play an outsized role in determining the overall volume of the music. The reason is a technical one: Drums generate frequency components all across the audio spectrum. This is different for melodious instruments such as guitars or keyboards, or even voice. Sounds generated by these instruments generate a more limited range of frequencies.
But a strike on a drum (or cymbal) produces what engineers call an “impulse,” a function that generates frequency components that span the entire audio spectrum — from the lowest bass to the highest soprano. In a sense, every other instrument is battling the drums for their own piece of the spectrum. So it’s in the interest of other band members to keep a rein on the drummer’s volume. To put this in terms that every musician understands: The drums step on everybody.
So, perhaps it’s time to bring things down to a less damage-inducing level, to aim at achieving a sound that is rich, full and round, but not painful.
Amplifiers have volume controls that go down as well as up. Many in your audience already have hearing loss. Do them a favor and help them preserve the hearing they have left.
Will my plea fall on deaf ears? I really can’t say.
But it’s certain to fall on ears that are becoming deaf.
Ron Green is an electrical engineer, inventor and writer whose work has appeared in various publications including EE Times, Embedded.com and the Journal of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan. Ron has lived in Santa Cruz for 10 years, and plays drums with a number of local bands and musicians. His claim to fame: He saw Jimi Hendrix at Madison Square Garden in New York, on Jan. 28, 1970 — the famous fiasco when he played a couple of songs, dropped his guitar on stage and walked off.